On being an artist

Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.
Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.

Why don’t I “put myself out there”? The usual accessories of an “art career” — gallery representations, art competitions, solo shows: I neither seek nor want any of this. Why?

And, more interestingly perhaps, why this question bothers me at all — enough to be writing this?

An easy answer to the second question is that there is a social pressure to “put yourself out there”, to do all these things. That’s what professional artists do, that’s what gives you the “title”. In fact, there is a belief system in which it’s only recognition by the “Art World” that transforms what you are doing into “Art”.

But not only is this answer easy, it is also “lazy”, because, in the final analysis, I “generate” this social pressure myself — through books I read, mail lists I subscribe to, websites I visit, and so on. Nobody else can put this pressure on me if I don’t cooperate.

It won’t be too hard not to feel it (which will make it, for all intents and purposes, non-existent). Even if I don’t want to withdraw from all these networks of information completely (because there are other reasons not to), it should not, in theory, be a problem to tune myself out of this pressure — just like I am tuned out of loads of other things that neither interest nor “trigger” me in any way.

But it doesn’t work this way: although I am genuinely not interested in all these career opportunities, but I still do put all this pseudo-social pressure on myself, and, what’s more, I am as genuinely curious about why it is I am not interested.

I see it as a contradiction, a tension — something to explore and to live through, if only to know myself better. But it is also possible that this — relatively superficial and personal question — covers a deeper and more general one hiding behind it, just out of mind’s reach.

So why does this question bother me?

The usual suspect is fear: it’s often our fears that make us avoid something we really want.

So maybe I really do want something of a “successful art career”, complete with solo exhibitions in prestigious spaces, but I am scared of it, too. Scared, perhaps, of being somehow hurt in the process — if not me as a whole, then my ego at least. This suspicion is not something to be cast aside lightly, even if I don’t seem to feel this fear, because fears have a way of camouflaging themselves. It’s way too easy to rationalise a fear as something more respectable. So I’ll leave this possibility open for the time being — it may be that what bothers me here is the fear of fear, the suspicion that I am succumbing to a fear without realising it.

The other usual suspect is contribution: if an artist is supposed to make a contribution to the world, and to art, then the work needs to be seen, right? If nobody sees it, then it might as well have never existed at all. If I believe my paintings can contribute something, then I should really care about shows and “exposure” — so why don’t I?

Well, that’s not quite the case — because I do show my stuff on the internet. It’s not exactly the same thing (or rather, absolutely not the same thing) as seeing paintings “in person”, but there is an option of visiting my studio, or getting paintings sent over to your home to live with. Letters I receive from people who live with my paintings on their walls are often filled with such depth of emotion and vulnerability as to leave me in no doubt that the paintings do their work — that some sort of contribution does happen.

But still — shouldn’t I make more of an effort to “be seen”, to make it easier for people to see my work? And aren’t shows, and other conventional kinds of exposure, the only way to do so?

The problem is, there are just too many shows. Too many people trying to be make a contribution by being seen (and not enough people trying to see). Collectively, we create a visual equivalent of a room in which everyone is shouting in an attempt to be make easier for others to hear them — and this noise all but drowns any real potential for contribution.

To my own surprise, this metaphor — the image of a room filled with shouting people — revealed, for me, the real question; the real, general tension hiding behind my personal turmoil.

This is a tension between two concepts of art, two stories.

In the familiar, old story, few people are artists — those who can show something for others to see; there are artists, on the one hand, and audiences, on the other. This is the concept embodied in nearly all existing frameworks and social structures known as “Art World”.

The alternative concept is that being an artist is the only way to being fully human. I would call this a “new story”, except it was created in Ancient Greece. This is how Gottfried Richter describes this insight in “Art and Human Consciousness”:

“<…> the human being who simply gives himself up to the workings of the forces of life remains dull, passionate, immoderate and akin to the animal. Whoever simply shoves these forces aside in favour of the spirit may gain clarity and a measure of morality, but he also becomes a withered intellectual and can never be sure that they will not come back to him some day and exact a terrible revenge. The man who really overcomes them and attains his freedom is the “muse-filled” or artistic human being who stands in the middle between the other two like Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, who sat over the pit out of which the dragon’s vapours rose and at the same time received inspiration from the divine forces coming down to her from above. This is man between the animal and God, where the breath of freedom blows that becomes one with a higher necessity.”    

However old, this insight has never been more relevant and urgent than now, when the rise of productivity and automation is rapidly freeing human beings from the necessities of labor. But it doesn’t really “fit” the established social structures — if we try, the result is the room where everyone is shouting, and no conversation is possible. The ideal world, a world in which everyone is fully human, needs another, new way of being an artist, neither attached to nor defined by result-oriented things like showing work to audiences and being accepted by the art world.

And for this new way of being an artist to emerge, it needs to be found and explored — and that is, I guess, what I am doing, and a conventional “art career” just doesn’t fit the bill.

On the responsibility of the artist [April 6-7, 2016]

Rembrandt. Artist in his studio. 1626.
Rembrandt. Artist in his studio. 1626.

Over the last several weeks, I somehow lost the rhythm of daily writing — which I seemed to have found, and integrated firmly into the overall structure of my day, in the beginning of this year.

The inner core of this rhythm is journaling, in my own, very inner, very private journal; writing down, every evening, all the impressions and insights of the day — in studio and elsewhere; having a deeper look into my own mind. The public, blogging facade — this “Studio Journal” — is an outshot of that. I would re-read every evening what I’ve written the day before, and if there was something worth sharing, I would edit the entry into a “Studio Journal” blog post, which is to say — edit out all the stuff which I feel should remain private; things completely personal and unrelated to the studio process.

I know — I’ve learned it the hard way — that journaling is essential for my life and work, for their organic, effortless flow. But there is a paradox in that, a paradox rooted in fear. Journaling is a tool for self-reflection, as a mirror of my mind. It creates a pause needed to take a step back from the fleetingness of life, and to see what’s really going on, to accept and “integrate” the achievements, and to acknowledge the failures, to gain some measure of clarity for my journey into the future.

It is as essential as “stepping back” in the painting process — when you stop the process, and look at what you are doing from a distance. If you don’t do it with some regularity, you are likely to end up with a mess — or, at the very least, with something dramatically different from what you imagined you were painting. And the danger is that, sometimes, there is a temptation to delay stepping back precisely because you really sense you need it — but this sensation means that something might have gone wrong, and you are not fully aware of it. There is a temptation in keeping the illusion of flow intact, to let it live for a while. And so you don’t do it precisely because you need to do it.   

I think I got it right with the painting process — reacting almost automatically when this sensation begins to arise. But the journaling practice is newer and weaker (although I did journal in the past, this was long ago). And so the routine broke exactly when it was most needed, when I began to feel that something might have gone wrong, but — apparently — didn’t really want to see it clearly. Life — at least my life — unfolds in these waves of ups and downs. I renewed journaling on the upward movement — precisely because I wanted to gain more awareness about what actually happens during the “downs”, and hoped that the habit will “hold” — but it broke almost at the first hint of the first downward movement.

So there is only one way — to renew it right now, without waiting for the next “up” (even though I suspect that this very determination might signal the beginning of the next “up” — which would be very welcome, by the way). And not only “internal” journaling — the “Studio Journal” blog, too; after all, the idea is that raw reflections on the process of painting the sonnets are an inherent part of the whole project.   

But this entry is not about sonnets — not directly. We had to go to San Francisco on Wednesday, and decided to use this opportunity to visit Pierre Bonnard’s exhibition in Legion of Honor. We’ve never really seen his work properly, even though he is represented in many museums we’ve been to. But on those occasions, competition was usually too strong — just too many things that I needed to see more; there was never enough time and space for Bonnard. In retrospect, I think it was good that I didn’t see his work properly before, because this was a completely unexpected experience, and a strikingly unpleasant one. Not because he is not a powerful painter — rather, because he is.

The essence of painting is showing the invisible — sharing one’s inner experience of the world with the viewer(s). And the experience communicated by Bonnard is that of an extreme world-alienation; more so: life-alienation. It is impressionism for the age of life-alienation — or rather, in Bonnard’s case, of complete alienation between human beings, a total, cold, unbearable breakdown of empathy and compassion.

His world of is the world populated by human beings who are absent even though their bodies are there — but just as material objects that affect the distribution of light and colour. Sometimes their heads are just cut off by the edge of the picture plane, sometimes shadowed to the point of invisibility. But even when they are visible, people are expressionless, nearly faceless — they are not present as human beings; if the eyes are windows into the soul, they have no souls (and even self-portraits don’t really constitute an exception). The only beings who have souls in this world are cats (and, less so, dogs).

I know this experience is real; there is a truth in it — after all, it’s not without reason that the ability to be present is being praised as a spiritual achievement. But, frankly, the last thing I want is for this experience to be magnified by painting — and Bonnard certainly has the power to do so. As a matter of fact, I hope that the peak — or rather the darkest depth — of the age of alienation might be over, that we are moving away from that. And these paintings — they certainly don’t help. That’s why I don’t even want to illustrate this post with a reproduction…   

I’ve been reading this book, “Art and Human Consciousness”, by Gottfried Richter. I keep planning to write about it in more detail, but it is hard to find my language for that — because his language is strongly shaped by his worldview, which is, in many ways, alien to me. I was able to transcend this gap in reading, but it is more difficult to do in writing.

But the Bonnard exhibition reminded me of one of Richter’s observations about the art of the twentieth century. He believes that, in earlier ages, artists were, in a sense, protected: as though there was an angel guarding the doorway to the darkness. If you were a true artist, you could be assured that all the insights you get — all the inner experiences you express — come from the light side of the spiritual realm (even though this doorway, too, was guarded by an angel). But now, both angels have left the world, and both doorways are unguarded. The artist now bears the full responsibility of knowing whether an experience come from the darkness or from the light. You can be a true artist, and still help in spreading the darkness in the world. And that was my experience of Bonnard.